Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Jackfruits and the Food for Global Warming Times

I WAS writing about jack-fruit the other day, for my edit page. What has jack-fruits to do with a political newspaper?

Everything, it should appear. 

Jacks are tough and they withstand the global warming, the droughts and all the vagaries of the nature that it will entail. When wheat and rice and maize whither away in the droughts -- as they do in many parts of the world today-- jack-fruits will remain a solid source of food for human beings, though most of us have forgotten the thrills of enjoying a ripe jack-fruit in the common kitchen. 

I have five sturdy trees in my small compound, all bearing fruits in the summer. The fruits are everywhere, and they hang from the trunk like udders from an old bovine. As the summer heat goes up, the mesmerizing smell of the ripe fruit spreads in the atmosphere and birds and squirrels arrive from far and wide--they make a meal of the fruits. And I gather the seeds for the rainy days. 

Still, jack-fruit is a nostalgia for most Malayalis today. Part of a lost childhood--for the middle aged. There was a time when the fruits were all consumed, even a time when thieves came to smuggle away the fruits from your yard...Perhaps, even poverty has a bright side?  

But nowadays, it is mostly wasted. This most edible of fruits remains un-cared for, and no one bothers to harvest them. There is no market for jacks and market decides our tastes. 

How times have changed and how our tastes are manipulated... 

Still, the sturdy trees are there in the compound and I hope one day the fruits will become dearer to us, once again. I am told in Viet Nam and Sri Lanka they have set up businesses that adds value to the fruits and sell them in the market. May be someone here also will think about it? 

It will be great to have the fried jack-seeds as a nice snack for my evening coffee or beer later on as the sun goes down. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Nilgiri Hills: A new book on European and Anglo Indian Heritage in South India

Here is an announcement on the forthcoming release of a new book on the Nilgiri Hills, one of south India's premier hill stations in 19th century. The book, Nilgiri Hills: Christian Memorials 1822-2006, is jointly researched and produced by Dr John C Roberts, social anthropologist in New York, and N P Chekkutty, senior journalist in Calicut.

The Nilgiris which became a major station for the English and other Europeans from 1820s has burials of thousands of the English, French and Anglo Indians spread over various towns across the district.

The South India Research Associates (SIRA) which carried out the two-year  research program and is now bringing out the book offers a very attractive subscription offer.

Here is the copy of the press note, pasted below:

15 December 2013

Greetings for the New Year,

We wish to announce that we have completed our two-year comprehensive survey of cemeteries and isolated graves in the Nilgiri Hills and are going on-press this month for a February 15th release.

We are printing only a limited edition of 250 copies.  The quality will equal our Malabar Christian Memorials: 1723-1990.   Nilgiri Hills Christian Memorials: 1822-2006 will be approximately 500 pages with full-color reproductions of historical images done in the Hills by Richard Barron, George Hutchin Bellasis, Edmund Lear, E.A. McCurdy,  Samuel Ponsonby Peacock and Robert Pouget.  It includes a detailed map of the location of the tea and coffee estates as well as the cemeteries.

We offer a pre-publication price of Rs. 1000 to our subscribers.  The price after release will be Rs. 1250.  Postage outside India is an additional Rs. 500.  If you wish to gift copies to anyone in India the postage is free.

We thank you for your kind support in our voluntary endeavors.

Best Wishes,

N.P. Chekkutty

for South India Research Associates

For details, please contact

Friday, August 16, 2013

In Search of European Graves in Malabar

THREE years ago, late August in 2010, I undertook my first visit to a European graveyard in Malabar, attached to the cemetery of St John’s Anglican Church, Cannanore, to see what remained of the people who ruled over India for over two centuries. Dr John C. Roberts, social anthropologist and genealogist in New York, had encouraged me to undertake this trip.  

The torrential monsoon rains had just abated, the cemetery grounds were still moist and full of puddles of water-- it was difficult to move about as the thick undergrowth clung to your feet and wild plants pulled at your sleeves. My friend Antony, a reporter with an Oman newspaper who guided me, warned me of snakes-- they lurk in the shades and better keep a watch where you step, lest you disturb the peace-loving creatures.

Inside, we could see dozens of gravestones, some of them almost two hundred years old--mostly covered with lantanas, wild plants and moss. No one took care of them and rarely someone came looking for them -- it was a depressing scene.

At the church, Rev. Leeson was courteous and he showed us the death registers that had documented the burials from 1857, the year of the revolt in north India. The book was kept in good order, the writing legible and the memorials on the church walls were impressive.

Three km away, at the centuries old Holy Trinity Church that dates back to the early 16th century when the Portuguese arrived in Cannanore, it was a different picture: The old structure had been pulled down, and a new and glamorous building had come up. The old church walls had many memorials, some of them very old, and the priest had kept all  of them in a small room behind the church. He did not know what to do with them-- they were part of the past and the past is gone. And I found them there, huge granite and marble slabs that bore elaborate writing, which were difficult to move. And the registers were also there--from 1847 and they ran into ten volumes. Difficult to read as pages were mostly torn and smudgy, and the paper quality quite poor. The cemetery was in better order, each year the churchgoers doing voluntary service to clean it up on the day of remembrance.

Then I visited Tellicherry and Mahe, two other towns that had a big European community for centuries-- both were centers of trade and theatres of war; the first a British garrison and the second a French fort; most of the European wars were played out in miniature here with rival forces lining up the northern and southern banks of the tiny Mahe river.

At Tellicherry, on a promontory that overlooks the beautiful beach, stood the two churches-St John’s Anglican and the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic-- with their centuries old cemeteries, in between.

Thanks to the intervention of the local municipality and the State Government, part of the old cemetery had been taken over by the Archeology Department and it was beautifully maintained. The grass was often cut and the wild growth kept under check; lights were put in various parts of the place. Between the memorials of the town’s past doyens like philanthropist Edward Brennan and the old magistrate Thomas Hervey Baber and his great rival the planter Murdoch Brown, I saw kids from the nearby  school playing hide and seek-- a scene that reminded me of the final resting place of that unforgettable girl, Nellie, in Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop.  

But very little of records were left. There was nothing left at the St John’s, a church that had been under legal dispute and uncared for, for a long time. At Holy Rosary, again a new structure at the place of the old church, the amiable priest Fr. Peter Parekkattil  showed me what is left--a bunch of old books mostly moth eaten and in tatters. It was next to impossible to garner anything from them. There were old memorials, pulled down, and again they were kept in a corner room of the church, away from public gaze.    

My friend Shaji Pandyala, another local journalist who guided me in the town, took me to the earliest graveyard of the Basel Mission in a nearby village, called Illukkunnu, for long the main station of missionary and scholarly activities of Rev. Hermann Gundert and his followers in Malabar. The graveyard was in a small piece of land on the side of a hill, and it appeared practically abandoned. One could see a  few tombs hidden in the wild growth, among them some of the early missionaries and their families from Germany and Switzerland who came to Malabar, keen on missionary work.  

At Mahe, my friend Dr Mahesh Mangalatt took us to what the locals called irimees, the corrupted form of a Portuguese word for cemetery. The old French and Anglo Indian tombs were neatly maintained, and the gates were normally kept under lock and key to keep off loiterers in this town, famous for its booze shops. But the old records were all gone, and luckily, the entire French records from the church’s beginning in 1720s were recovered from an archives in southern France by the volunteers of the LDS library at Salt Lake,US, later on.

So after this initial search, I came back, depressed. Here was a key to our past--a large collection of historical documents that needed to be retrieved and recorded before they were all gone. Most of it was already gone and were beyond repair- what we could think of was how to retrieve and record what is left.

Then we decided to launch a three-year programme -- to travel to all those towns again and take photographs of the records and gravestones and memorials wherever possible, try to decipher them with the help of experts and then bring them into a book that will give a comprehensive picture of the European and Anglo Indian life in these three towns that were the first European settlements in north Malabar.

It was not easy. It was not an academic research with support of grants, but a labor of love undertaken because of our love for our past and our composite culture, with our own limited resources. There was something unique and compelling in those solitary gravestones and memorials that reminded you of a distant past, a past with all its glory and also its darker and bloodier sides; still that was what we had in our past. So we decided to take it up, before it was too late.

My young son Praful took the steering wheel of our four-seater Hyundai Xing and we took off again --with a camera. Dr John Roberts, who retired from Columbia University, and his friend Thomas Maida, an art director in New York, flew down to Malabar for a vacation and they too joined us in some of the trips. In addition to the field trips, Dr. John Roberts had to conduct extensive searches in libraries and archives-- like the OIOC records at British Library where the quarterly returns from Indian churches are kept, the IGI (International Genealogy Index) database at Salt Lake, US, and a number of university libraries with India collections. To cut a long story short, in an effort that continued for over a year, we were able to retrieve and record quite a lot--that  later came out in the form of a book, Malabar:Christian Memorials 1737-1990, now released by South India Research Associates (SIRA), a voluntary network of scholars and researchers.

We received support from many-- like Dr Rafael Moreira, historian at  New University of Lisbon, who read those 18th century Portuguese script on a set of three tombstones that lay buried in seashore sands at Holy Rosary, Henry Brownrigg of London who has travelled all over the Malabar coast in search of the old European burials and memorials for many decades, Dr K S Mathew, a Portuguese scholar of eminence in Malabar,  Dr M G S Narayanan, historian and former chairman of Indian Council for Historical Research, Abdul Majeed, the friendly librarian at Calicut Archives, P Sudhakaran, the inquisitive reporter for Times of India in Cannanore who wrote some interesting newspaper stories on our work, and many others.

So  the first volume of Malabar memorials is now out; then in the past two years we continued our work in the Nilgiri Hills and the southern parts  of Malabar--from Calicut to Travancore, and Fort St.George, Madras. The work still remains a labor of love and a purely voluntary effort. But those travels are better told in a different story.

Would like to know more about/support/volunteer for SIRA? Write to

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Malabar:Christian Memorials- A new book on Malabar

Book on European graves in
Malabar released

 Kannur, Feb 6:

Malabar: Christian Memorials 1737-1990, a book on European gravestones and church memorials in the Malabar towns of Kannur, Thalassery and Mahe has been released at the International Book Fair in New Delhi. The book, researched and written by Dr John C. Roberts, a social anthropologist who worked at Oxford and Columbia universities, and N P Chekkutty, a senior journalist in Calicut, has details on the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English gravestones in the region. The book also has a complete list of Europeans buried in various cemeteries in these towns during the past two centuries,  based on the burial registers maintained in various churches.

The authors said research work on the book was launched in September 2010 and data was gathered from the extant gravestones in cemeteries, burial registers in churches, and quarterly returns on births and deaths maintained by the French and English governments on their citizens, kept in the British Museum and the French National Archives.

The book covers burials at the St Johns Anglican Church and Holy Trinity RC Church in Kannur, the St John’s Anglican Church and the Holy Rosary RC Church at Thalassery, and the St Theresa’s Church and cemetery at Mahe. The burials at the German Basel Mission cemeteries at Kannur and Thalassery are also recorded. The book has details on the European regiments and native troops stationed at the Cannanore Cantonment and details on deaths in armed forces.

The authors said the book gives a comprehensive picture of the health hazards faced by the Europeans in the colonial towns in 19th century, as most of the entries have details on the cause of death.

The 272- page book, with two maps and a large number of photographs, is published by the South India Research Associates (SIRA), a voluntary network of researchers and scholars, registered in New York.

The SIRA was launched as a network of scholars and researchers interested in the European and Anglo-Indian heritage in south India, with a view to the retrieval and recording of their cultural assets, which are facing serious threats. In addition to the present book, the SIRA is shortly to release two more volumes--The Nilgiri Hills: Christian Memorials 1822-2000 and Malabar: Christian Memorials volume two that will cover areas from Calicut to Travancore. another study, Coromandal: Christian Memorials Fort St. George 1652-1947 is now at an advanced stage of preparation and may be redy for release in 2014. Those who are interested in these projects may contact for details. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Culture and History? Go to Trash Heap...

Here is a note submitted to the Cultural Affairs department of Kerala  government with regard to restoration of some 16th-17th  century Portuguese gravestones, now dumped in a government museum  in Trissur. It was submitted to Mr K C Joseph,  Cultural  Minister, on April 17, 2012 and so far no action has been taken, though the government  had promised to do so.

WE the undersigned, Dr John Cantwell Roberts of New York and N P Chekkutty, Calicut, have been working on a project for the proper recording and analysis of the European gravestones and cemeteries in the erstwhile British Malabar and Nilgiri districts for the past two years.  Dr John C Roberts is a retired social anthropologist who has served in various centers of learning including the universities of Oxford  and  Columbia and is the author of scholarly  articles and books like the Early Cantwells in Ireland, a major work on medieval European prosopography. N P Chekkutty has worked in India for almost three decades as a journalist. Two books —Malabar:  The Christian Burials and Memorials in Kannur,Thalassery & Mahe 1723-1950 and The Nilgiris: Christian Burials and Memorials in Gudalur, Ootacamund, Wellington, Coonoor & Kotagiri 1822-2000, will be published by the British Association for Cemeteries  in South Asia (BACSA), London, later this year, as part of our work.  We are now working on the European burials in the rest of old Malabar, comprising areas from Calicut to Angengo in the south.

The present work has academic as well as economic aspects:  As we try to restore the genealogy of the families and individuals buried here, we are also providing a handbook for potential tourists who are looking for details on the final resting place of their ancestors who died in India in the centuries past.   There are tens of thousands of such people buried in the Malabar coast, who came from all parts of Europe, dating back to early 16th century. Some of these monuments are of great historical value and ought to be preserved for the benefit of future studies.

In this connection, we would like to bring your attention to half a dozen gravestones of Portuguese origin, removed by the authorities from an old graveyard near Kodungallur and now stored in the Government Murals Museum, at Chembukakvu, Trichur.  We are sorry t o say that most of these gravestones of some historical significance are dumped one over the other in the courtyard of the museum and are handled in a most deplorable manner. Of the six gravestones we could identify with the help of Prof. Rafael Moreira of the New University of Lisbon, Portugal, only one is in a good condition while all others are broken into pieces, covered with mud and slime making them quite illegible, thanks to insensitive and rough handling as they were transported from place to place after being pulled out of their original resting place. 

Of the six gravestones, we could properly identify the one that belonged to Felipe Perestrelo, who was vicar and school teacher in the region in late 16th century.  His life and family connections are most exciting and evoke historical memories of the period, as he came from a noble Italian family that was related to the Portuguese crown as well as to Christopher Columbus, the great navigator who charted a new route to the Americas in 1492 opening up a new chapter in world history. Other interesting finds in this collection, though broken, include the coat of arms of the Costa family, the burial stone of a navigator who sports the intriguing insignia of the skull and cross bones, a late 17th century symbol that denoted sea pirates.  This must be one of the earliest such symbols ever used and hence of great value in the study of the history of navigation and piracy.

We earnestly call upon the Government of Kerala to take notice of the manner in which these historical relics are handled making them almost inaccessible to scholars and visitors. These stones need to be properly cleaned and mounted, using concrete base fixed with iron bars which will hold the broken pieces  in a proper shape so that visitors and scholars can inspect them at their leisure. You can see that it would cost next to nothing to the exchequer while it would attract large numbers of new visitors to the state.

We do hope the government will take steps for their proper upkeep and we assure every help from scholarly community in India and outside for the restoration of these gravestones.

With sincere thanks,
Dr John Cantwell Roberts, New York
N P Chekkutty, Calicut

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bab-al Bahrain

THE ships came unannounced
dancing on the waves big and small;
laden with wares rich and rare
they entered the souk
through the arched gateway;
beneath its high dome
a world rich and glamorous.

He was weird and with a beard,
she laughed at him for his looks;
she hid beyond the Venetian blinds
of Awal; around him shops
glittered, and bright windows
glowed with gold and pearls.

In the desert and the scorching sun
love struck him like a thunderbolt;
a lonely wanderer all his life
it struck him mad; it made him blind.

Where did I hear the playful laughter
that cuts like a razor sharp?
Where did I hear the distant sigh
that moves the mountains high?
From Jishanmal's narrow streets
to the wide expanse of golden
sand on the way to the Tree of Life
he prays for a fleeting glimpse
of the divine form, etched in soul.

At the high-domed grand mosque
a prayer goes up in heavens,
Ya Allah, show me the way
to the divine presence.
To the one who prayed on her
knees, for the beloved
who wandered far and wide.

For whom the battles raged
in mystic Dilmun days?
For whom the pearls longed
in their sleepy oyster homes?
For whom the Barbar temple
offered beasts and birds?

She remains hidden in the shrouds
of history; her golden neck unadorned,
her lovely limbs un-massaged;
her lazy locks unfastened;
the sheets in her bed longing for
the day her man will come with
a sweet and mesmerizing smile.

Wafa Manama, 03.10.2012.

(Dedicated to Dr Maria Bernadette Gomes, who told me about the romantic charm of Bahrain past, opening my eyes to a life beyond the malls and marts in the deserts.) 

Friday, August 17, 2012

T Venugopalan: A Pioneer in Media Professionalism

“ONE of the toughest days in my career,” T Venugopalan, veteran Malayalam journalist who died in Calicut on August 3, 20012, at age 82, used to tell all those who cared to listen to him in his innumerable sessions all over Kerala, explaining the challenges o f making a good newspaper front page, “ was the day Indira Gandhi was shot dead.” Most of his younger students could not imagine how daunting the task for the veteran, then at the pinnacle of his career, the presiding deity at the central desk of Kerala’s most respected nationalist daily, Mmathrubhumi, when the tragic incident took place on the last day of October in 1984. It shocked the nation, something almost similar to the assassination of the Mahatma over four decades earlier. The incident posed serious professional challenges before any media-person who had to convey the shock, the dramatic nature of unfolding events and its immense significance to a grieving nation to the discerning readers used to the laid back approach of the print medium that was facing big threats from a nascent visual media. And for Venugopalan, it was not just another news development that was earth-shaking: It was indeed a personal loss and a deeply traumatic experience because he was born and brought up in the same nationalist tradition that gave birth to a leader like Indira Gandhi. His father was close to the nationalist movement and that is why he came to Mathrubhumi, the newspaper that came into existence as a mouthpiece for the Indian National Congress In Kerala in 1923, at the tender age of 22 in 1952, hand chosen by V M Nair, then its managing director. He had just completed his BA degree from Kerala Varma College, Trissur, a centre of learning with strong literary ambiance, when he was whisked to the desk of the tradition-bound newspaper which was struggling to come to terms with its own transition to a commercial product in a new and vibrant industry, from its original incarnation as a nationalist mouthpiece. It was not an easy time for him or anyone else to join the profession. The old pattern of well known and idealist politicians doubling up as agents and reporters and editors, who would disappear to the next public meeting exactly at the moment when the deadline approaches for the next day’s edition, leaving all the troubles and responsibilities to the young and inexperienced hacks back at the desk, was still prevalent and Mathrubhumi had a big crop of such veterans who looked down upon the wannabe crowd of younger professionals who had different ideas about media work. For those who belonged to the old school, age-old rules were sacrosanct and no experiments in the style of writing, page layout, or design were to be tolerated. All such talks about professionalism and media’s role as an industry were anathema and it was in such a context that a young professional like Venugopalan made concerted attempts to bring in new experiments and new ideas to all departments of newspaper profession like reporting, editing, design and makeup. “No rule is immune to changes,” he used to say, “if you could convince your readers that they are good.” That is what he did that day when Indira Gandhi died. He simply dumped the old style of as much information on the front page, and instead made a page that conveyed the image of a nation in shock, with sparse text and stark and dramatic graphics—a precursor to the graphics-rich newspaper design that became the norm a decade or so later. A tribute to the man who was bold enough to experiment beyond his times, this particular edition of the paper is now in display at the Nehru Memorial Museum& Library in Delhi, in a collection on the historic moments in the young nation’s life. Venugopalan was one of the most prominent among the first generation of post-Independence Malayalam journalists, who redrew the rules of the profession and made them more in tune with changing times. He thought professionalism was the key to the success of the new industry, and along with the other veterans of the generation like Thomas Jacob of Malayala Manorama, P Aravindakshan of Indian Express, N V Pylee of Express (Malayalam) and N N Satyavratan of Mathrubhumi, he endeavoured to bring in professionalism across the length and breadth of the newspaper profession in Malayalam, with training session for local reporters and staff members in other newspapers, most of them small and medium units which dominated the media industry back then. He insisted on a simple: Make things simple and easy to communicate, for your readers are simple folks. He was general secretary of the Kerala Union of Working Journalist s (KUWJ) for three terms in its infancy, and in this capacity developed a media training programme called Newscraft for media professionals in the State bringing in well known name s in Indian journalism and world media including from Thomson Foundation in London for its workshops conducted all over Kerala. It was from the experiences gained from these sessions of Newscraft that the Government of Kerala was persuaded to set up the Kerala Prèss Academy, which became the nodal agency for media training in the State late on. Venugopalan had around 50 years of experience in Malayalam journalism at the time when he took voluntary retirement from Mathrubhumi as deputy editor in 1988, following a tiff with the management. He then became the most celebrated media expert and consultant for smaller newspapers and start-up television channels that sprung up n the nineties and even later. In the decade or so when was active after retirement, before illness forced him to take a backseat, he had served in various newspapers like Madhyamam, Mangalam, Express, etc, and also anchored a programme on media at Asianet which was considered a path-breaking one in such genre in Malayalam television. As a younger professional, I was associated with him from late nineties, when he took over as the first director of the Institute of Communication & Journalism (ICJ), one of the first media training institutions in Malabar region, s et up by the Calicut Press Club in 2000 with government assistance for infrastructure. As president of the Press Club and chairman of the governing committee of the ICJ, I had worked closely with him in those initial years, when he tirelessly worked to develop a state off the art curriculum for the one-year post-graduate diploma course offered there, with special emphasis on new and emerging areas of media activity like television, new media, etc. We were also able to bring out a journal on media and society, Media Focus, which carried articles and analysis from a number of Indian and international scholars and professionals in the two years of its existence. Venugppalan proved to be a very sincere and committed senior advisor to most of the new media ventures that came up in the late nineties and early 2000s in Kerala. I was personally involved in at least two such initiatives, seeking and receiving his help and advice in matters like recruitment, training, etc—first at Kairali TV News which started telecast at Cochin in August 2000 and then again at Thejas daily, launched from Calicut in January 2006. He was a modest man, always accessible, and very pleasant. A chain smoker, he kept the Scissors brand of cigarette stuck tight in his fingers almost always-- which finally spurred his end with nicotine poisoning in his systems. With child-like pleasure and eagerness, he took part in all kinds of activities in his office along with the most junior colleagues, whether it is playing games, pulling the legs of a colleague or writing instant poetry to drive away the drudgery of the work at late night shifts. He had another, serious pursuit in his private moments: As a scholar and researcher whose contributions might remain for a long time. He spent more than 12 years researching the life and works of Swadeshab himani k Ramakrishna Pillai, Kerala’s most celebrated journalist and editor who was banished from his native Travancore in 1910, writing his biography as well as editing and publishing all his works and editorials in a series of volumes. He was a self effacing man, who avoided the limelight and kept off from public platforms except at media class rooms. The Government of Kerala honoured him in 2011 with the first Swadeshambhimani- Kesari Award, instituted in memory of the two legendary editors in Malayalam, for his life long contributions to Malayalam media and journalism.